Longtime Washington Performing Arts audience favorite Zakir Hussain is the “indisputable tabla maestro”: an artist who has not only taken his instrument to its limits within its original discipline, Indian classical music, but who has vastly expanded the presence of both his instrument and musical heritage within other genres—including jazz, rock, and Irish and American folk music.
Leading the newest edition of his long-running, biannual “Masters of Percussion” ensemble, Hussain is joined by fellow drum virtuosos representing multiple cultures, traditions, and instruments: Iranian-born percussionist Pezhham Akhavass, performing on tombak and daf; Multi-Grammy-winning American jazz drummer Marcus Gilmore; and Anantha Krishnan, a percussionist raised in America and residing in India, on mridangam. In a pre-recorded, offsite guest appearance, the percussionists are also joined by Indian musician Sabir Khan, a master of the sarangi, a traditional stringed instrument. You can watch this incredible performance from the comfort of your home for $25.
In an exclusive chat with India Currents magazine, the legend, Zakir Hussain tells us more:
How different is your experience as a percussion artist in a virtual Livestream show without the live audience?
ZH: I do miss plugging into the audience’s reaction as an inspiration source. It would be true for all musicians. However, not having the audience in person challenges me to focus more on detail and on the musical statement I want to make. The responsibility is squarely on my shoulders and the message is mine alone. This requires a different mindset which, of course, is the most challenging hurdle to get over.
Your performance was originally titled “The Story of the Tabla” and has now evolved to “Masters of Percussion”. Can you tell us more about the origin story of your production?
ZH: Originally, “The story of Tabla” was a much bigger production involving many more artists. What we are presenting here is only one aspect of Tabla’s story. Tabla is one of the youngest classical Indian instruments, but it has already made significant strides as a world instrument. This particular show focuses on how the Tabla repertoire influenced other drumming traditions and how certain drumming countries appear to have similar techniques on their drums. For example, the mridangam is adopting Tabla compositions and transposing the hand technique effortlessly. The Jazz drum and the Iranian Tombak or Daf do something similar as well. It is an interesting coincidence when the Indian bowed instrument sarangi enters the fray and how all the drums on stage easily lock in with the folk melodies of Rajsthan. Honestly, there are no borders.
Tabla is an instrument going through an evolution. What do you think is the most significant trend in the upcoming decade for Tabla?
ZH: As time marches on, Tabla still being a young entrant has the flexibility to expand its panorama. The technique applied on Tabla allows for it to be a part of any musical conversation: Jazz, Rap, Hip hop, Folk, Electronica, Classical, or any other form of music expression yet to be discovered. There are miles to go…
Piyali Biswas De is an accomplished Bharatnatyam and Non-classical dance exponent, guru, and well-known choreographer in the Greater Seattle region. When she is not dancing, Piyali works as an IT professional in Seattle and spends time with two beautiful daughters who seem eager to follow in her footsteps.
In the light of school closures due to the Coronavirus, two high school seniors, Uditha Velidandla and Sarika Sriram, set up a free online program for elementary and middle schoolers through the Almaden South Asian Women’s Association.
After learning about the 3-week school shutdown on Friday, March 13, Velidandla and Sriram put in more than 24 hours over the course of two days preparing lesson plans and the technology needed to go live on Monday, March 16th, the first day of the shutdown. Their main goal?
“To give parents enough time to find an adequate replacement for formalized education”
Over three days, their volunteer-run program grew from 6 students per grade to more than 50 students in each grade. In the second week now, the program includes over 400 students and 90 volunteer tutors.
All classes are run on Zoom, an online video conferencing platform. “By using Zoom”, Sarika explained, “the social aspect of class is still present. The students and the teachers can see each other, and lessons are more interactive.”
For elementary schoolers, the program consists of lessons taught by high school student volunteers from 9 am to 3 pm. The curriculum is based on various sources, including textbooks used in local elementary schools, and state standards. “We wanted to ensure that we were keeping the kids engaged while helping them refresh concepts learned in school earlier in the year. We know from experience how easy it is to forget material over an extended break.”
The successful first week included classes such as mathematics, reading comprehension, creative writing, and also STEM-based experiments and activities, Hindustani and Carnatic music lessons, and an arts class.
They announced this week that they have expanded their program to include a middle school.
“There was a high level of demand for a middle school program. We are fortunate to have enough volunteers who are willing to teach the middle classes.” says Uditha. “None of this would have been possible without the help of our dedicated volunteers- they have spent countless hours with us along the way, from planning the curriculum to teaching classes and responding to questions on our behalf. Both Sarika and I are very grateful for all of our volunteers.”
They are also trying to work with the San Jose Unified School District to make their lesson plans available to children in San Jose who are unable to access e-learning.
“It is heartwarming that we have been able to contribute to the community that has given us so much. We hope to be of similar assistance to communities that do not have easy access to e-learning infrastructure. We are proud of the fact that we hit the ground running and that the program has continued into its second week”, they say.
They have received positive feedback from parents, receiving messages and emails that are similar to this one parent’s experience:
I’m amazed how all the kids and tutors have progressed so well, to get comfortable with the online learning concept, with order and respect, in just 4 days of classes. Today WhatsApp has been very quiet, which is awesome! Congratulations to all tutors, organizers, and students. And I must say my kid is quite eager to attend classes and loves ‘seeing’ his friends and future middle-school friends in the e-world. Thank you all.”
It has not been all smooth sailing for the two founders. They continue to spend 12 to 15 hour days bringing this service to the community. “In addition to adapting our communication styles, we have had to iron out technical issues and assist tutors in managing online classroom behavior. We have taken the help of parent volunteers to ensure that the classroom is a welcome learning environment for everyone.”
If you are interested in learning more about the program or donating to their cause, Sriram and Velidandla encourage you to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and to explore the ASAWA website.
Suchitra Patri is the founder and president of the Almaden South Asian Women’s Association. She is an accountant by profession and enjoys reading and spending time with her family in her free time.
The Festival of Tabla is an annual two-day immersive weekend of Indian classical music taking place on 28th and 29th July 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
The Festival of Tabla was launched in 2017 in California and spotlighted a cast of 19 presentations over two days. The festival featured a cornucopia of instruments; tabla, sitar, santoor, bansuri, sarangi, vocal music and visual arts brought by excellent musicians, ranging from masters to students with the youngest presenter being only eleven years old. For the first time, it also featured visual Fine Arts by Mala Ganguly and Kamaljeet Ahluwalia.
“Festival of Tabla is a genre-specific platform where the language of Taal (Tabla ) and percussion instruments are the primary content with complimentary presentations offered by instrumental, vocal and dance,” says organizer Rupesh Kotecha. “This year’s festival falls around Guru Poornima, and so we collectively celebrate the Guru within, the Guru of foresight and our respective Gurus. As a dedicated tabla weekend, we receive valuable recognition from local and global music enthusiasts as the festival is proving to be a horizon for deeper connectivity, where musicians champion musicians, hence imbibe in our young, such exemplary virtues of parampara, the same for the guardianship of our heritage.”
The Festival of Tabla features 32 visionary artists ranging from advanced learners to masters of the art like Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri and the son of legendary Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Alam Khan, along with Pt. Vijay Kangutkar, Pt. Sadanand Naimpalli, Pankaj Mishra, Pt. Sanatan Goswami and a host of other great artists. Aspiring artists and students from Canada, New York, India, Scotland, San Francisco and Los Angeles have been carefully assessed, filtered, and invited.
India Currents had the opportunity to speak with Festival founder, Rupesh Kotecha. Here is an excerpt from this conversation.
Where do you see the Festival going in 5 years?
It would be great to see the concept spread to other states and countries. I’d like to partner with organizations in other countries and have the Festival of Tabla™ on the same date, under one identity, at the same time around the whole world. I suppose it would be like global Taal prayer/tribute to the Gurus of Tabla and Sangeet as a whole.
How do you plan to sustain the Festival?
We have a few sponsors who see the value in this unique Festival and we receive support from friends and family. This year, we are supported byLohana Community USA, the Manek Family, Shankara Dance Academy, Deo Foundation, Vilas Jadhav, Chollera Family and our foundation members.
We are applying for grants and corporate sponsorships for the 2019 Festival to help us grow and keep its core purpose alive. The main agenda will be to sustain the energy, to keep the event going until the new generation steps in and takes the lead.
We strive to share the arts of Indian classical music and particularly the art of Tabla. The Festival of Tabla is this platform, guided by our humble organization called the Ravi & Shashi Bellare Arts Foundation, a not for profit organization.
Tell us a little about this Foundation
The Ravi & Shashi Bellare Arts Foundation is a registered non-profit organization established in 1992. My wife, Mona and I, set up the organization with sentiments of gratitude to my Gurus and family.
The Ravi & Shashi Bellare Arts Foundation carries the inspirations and memories of my Guru’s Pandit Ravi and Shashi Bellare, twin brothers, who were the first to introduce Tabla duet playing back in the 1940s. Both brothers were unquestionable performing artists as well as Gurus, and they are fondly remembered.
Ravi Bellare was a multi-talented musician, dancer, a scholar of the arts, and visual artist. Shashi Bellare was an accomplished accompanist to Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and numerous masters of the 19th and 20th century. The brothers are the nephews of Pandit Taranath Rao who was a maestro of the Tabla and taught at California Institute of the Arts for more than 15 years from the 1970’ onwards. Pandit Taranath Rao developed and taught the twins the art of Tabla Jugalbandi.
India Currents, a partner of the Festival of Tabla, encourages the Festival followers and all heritage arts enthusiasts from around the world to bring onboard your friends, families, groups, communities and allies to stay in touch with all things classical.
A shout out to the Kotecha family that says ‘’Let’s spread the love of the Indian classical arts together.’’
One of India’s foremost classical musicians, Rajeev Taranath is a master of the sarod. His career spanning over four decades, has drawn accolades from critics and audiences throughout the world.
A distinguished disciple of the late legendary maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, he also received guidance from the great sitarists Ravi Shankar and Shrimati Annapurna Devi . Rajeev Taranath is the recipient of many honors including India’s highest government award in the arts, the esteemed Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2000. He has received critical acclaim for his deep introspective style that melds imagination and emotional range combined with technical skill, and a highly disciplined approach to the development of a raga. “Rajeev Taranath’s sarod improvisations mixed the spiritual and the spirited…the raga began with introspective meditation and proceeded into an exuberant rhythmic celebration.” said critic Edward Rothstein of The New York Times A noted linguist, he speaks eight languages fluently. From 1995 to 2005, Taranath served on the music faculty of the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. Currently living in Mysore, India, Rajeev Taranath travels worldwide teaching and performing. Given below is an interview with this esteemed musician.
Did you grow up in a musical family?
My father was deeply interested in music. He used to sing and play the tabla. Although he was not a professional musician, I grew up with a lot of music around me. He started teaching me very easy songs. When I was around 3 years old, he made me listen to a lot of classical and vocal records and performances. I soon started singing and gave my first public performance at 10.
So, how did you leave singing for the sarod?
The most vivid moment in music I remember is the first experience of hearing Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, it was electrifying. I was and am a great admirer of Ravi Shankar’s music, so I used to attend every performance of his when he came to Bangalore, the city in which I lived. That particular time, he came with Ali Akbar Khan, who said that he would play the sarod along with him. Before that, I had heard very little of the sarod being played and definitely I had not heard Ali Akbar Khan play. It was a life-changing experience when he played his first movement on the sarod. That was my moment of epiphany, a moment of total grace. As I was listening, my life changed. Music moved to the centre of the universe. I was hooked and never looked back.
Can you explain why it spoke to you so much?
Well, you know, it’s like falling in love. How can you explain it?
So, one performance changed your life?
My life changed direction after that point. After I heard Ustad Ali Akbar Khan for the first time, it was a year and a half or more before I got introduced to him. I was just past 20 when I went to him and he soon accepted me as a disciple.
Please describe the training.
It was daily, sometimes twice a day, but then there would be periods with no lessons for a month or more, because he would be away, performing. By the time I went to him, the demand for his public performances was very high. I started practicing one hour, two hours. Then, for some time, it went on for up to 12 hours a day.
How do you work when you’re practicing music for 12 hours a day?
At that point, I was a beggar. I couldn’t find a job, but there was a benefactor Mr. P.K. Das of Kolkata. This man had nothing to do with music, but he gave me a room, and not very much later, he and his wife insisted I should have my meals with them. I had some sort of job afterward to keep me going, but they took care of me for six more years. That gave me an opportunity for which I am profoundly grateful, to practice many, many hours a day.
You had a very successful career as a vocalist when you were young. You were even described as a child prodigy. I have heard that you were and are profoundly moved when listening to the great vocalist Abdul Karim Khan.Why did you decide to switch to sarod? Many people say that the voice is the ultimate instrument for Indian music.
There is no doubt that vocals are at the center of our music. But Ali Akbar Khan is for me the paradigmatic example of excellence. I would say that in his sarod playing there is a kind of vocalism. He has a flexibility and versatility to his imagination, all of which have vocal sources. It’s not that he actually plays vocal bandishes. There are sarod players that do that, but he is not one of them. Vocalism is for him an abstract, silent, but immediate storehouse for the movements of the raga. It’s the thing that makes a raga more than a scale. I can almost say that given two very good instrumentalists, the person who is the better vocalist—in this special metaphorical sense—is the one whose music will have more “juice.” He might not be the fastest, but that’s because he would have no need to be the fastest.
Has Hindustani music changed over the years? To answer that question, I think it’s helpful to compare music to both language and physics. If you compare the English of Shakespeare’s time to modern English, you can see that it’s essentially the same. There are noticeable differences, but we can still understand Shakespeare. The physics of Shakespeare’s time, however, has been completely replaced by modern science. Throughout the history of Hindustani music, there’s been the same kind of growth and change that you can see in a language. But you don’t have the new completely replacing the old, as is the norm with scientific progress. For example, Ali Akbar Khan made profound changes in the sarod. Before him, the instrument sounded quick and staccato, with lots of trills. Khansahib still uses those trills, but his innovative playing gives the instrument a new profundity and depth. What do you think is the biggest challenge in playing Hindustani music? First, of course, you must practice and study diligently. If you do that, you will become either a competent or an incompetent player, and you will get to know which very soon. But once you have crossed the bar of competence, in about three or four years, what do you do then? You know how to play the raga correctly, but then what? At that point, playing the raga is rather like spreading butter on bread. You’ve got to see how well you can spread it, and how widely you can spread it. You must push at the frontiers of the raga, and yet see that it doesn’t break. If the raga breaks, you are in a kind of melodic anonymity, which ultimately breaks you as a musician. Have you managed to stretch the borders of any of the ragas you play? I try. When I play Patdeep, it’s difficult to make it long. You can feel very comfortable playing Yaman long, because it’s quite spacious and flexible. So is Bhairavi. But Patdeep is very brittle, and can’t be stretched easily. The rules for Patdeep are very strict, which is why it makes such an immediate effect. Once you’ve heard the identifying phrases, you know exactly what it is. But that’s a double-edged sword, because the audience is immediately “Patdeeped,” and it seems to be near closing time right away. Then you’re left with the challenge of where to go from there. For Patdeep, I try to unfold the scale of the raga a little bit at a time, so you can hear every nuance. You have to hold the raga back, stop it from exploding through you. That enables me to stay inside the raga, and not let the raga go, even when I’m playing for a long period of time. Last month I did a concert in which I played Patdeep for the alap-jor-jhala, and then switched to Madhuvanti for the gat. Madhuvanti has almost the same notes as Patdeep, and many of the same note arrangements. But Madhuvanti has tivra ma (raised fourth) and Patdeep doesn’t. Even though the notes are similar, the mood is very different, and these differences have to be kept. I wanted to create a natural change in mood, while still maintaining a sense of unity in the performance. When you play two ragas together, how do you decide which ragas to combine? There’s a kind of dialectic involved between a technical closeness, and yet the need and challenge to keep the moods different while playing in very similar scales. There are also other factors not as capable of tidy articulation. You might combine a raga that has a certain kind of gravitas with something that is not quite so serious—moods that are contrasting, yet still very close. Can you speak about your approach to developing a raga throughout the many years of riyaz?
There’s a kind of patience that you learn to take with you to the raga. If you’re patient, the raga will speak to you eventually.
Can you discuss the ideas you have regarding teaching Indian classical music?
When it comes to teaching of music, there is a trio – a teacher, a learner and an instrument. The teacher demonstrates how he has put the instrument to use and what he has been able to achieve. The attempt here is a give and take of such experience. This exploration of possibilities, initially in the form of bits and pieces, as alankaras or tabla bols or whatever, later on turns into an exercise in bringing together these little experiences to construct a creative whole. Further on, it is a kind of invitation to the learner to live with the teacher in the common world of music and in this journey together, the learner may even reach beyond. Each one’s style of playing is guided by one’s own possibilities, difficulties and impossibilities.
What is special about your gharana?
Unlike other gharanas which for many years remained closed-door, teaching freely with openness is a major preoccupation with the Maihar. Allauddin Khan, the Paramahamsa-like saint-musician took to vigorous teaching. This can perhaps be traced to the difficulty he encountered in learning and the fact that Allauddin was compelled to choose the sarod in a veena-dominated tradition which confined its veena–teaching to its kin alone. But his ingenuity incorporated the possibilities of veena into the sarod, remodelling it for the purpose. Several nuances of the veena came into sarod-baaj and later years saw the promotion of sitar, sur-bahar and sur-singar.
The Maihar-Senia gharana, which traces its lineage to Tansen in the 16th century, was one of the few schools that taught women music and we find historically the presence of many distinguished women instrumental performers within it from Saraswati, Tansen’s daughter, to Annapurna Devi, the daughter of the legendary Allauddin Khan.
In the context of our guru-sishya parampara and the oral/aural tradition, you once mentioned the ‘mediation of the eye’ in western classical music. Don’t you think a guru’s role is equally vital there in guiding….?
Mediation of the eye is important in Western classical music because of the reliance on the system of notation. The journey is from note to note but nothing as much may happens between the gaps. It is in the movement between notes that one’s culture operates. Mimesis is the basis of our music-teaching. Our music fills up with meends, gamaks, bols and these cannot be written down. We clutch the guru’s imagination, his mind that is so private. A guru gives good active seeds… but can one teach creativity?’ The artist or maestro, as T.S. Eliot says, lives at a conscious point where past and future are gathered. He has all the richness of the past, waiting to pass it on to the future, for his students to gather it all. So I try to teach, but a problem which I have repeatedly faced is this: I can transfer musical information but I don’t know yet, how to transfer the sense of relish. This is important in the kind of music we play and teach because the given is so tenuous.
Can you explain the artist’s process or desire for mastery?
To make better music– there is a desire, which is a life-long process- to create a match – to bring the thought and performance nearer and nearer. Actually it is the desire to translate what is happening in your mind into your fingers – even without that gap. The finger itself becomes imagination. But curiously the more you master, the more your imagination becomes active. Because what strikes you or me is seriously limited by what we can execute in singing or playing. And as that capacity improves, your imagination improves. The more you go toward mastery the more you see, the more you climb, the more you see. So there is no end to that – they feed on each other. Because you see, you want to climb more. Because you climb more you see much more. And so it goes on. And that act itself is a matter of very profound satisfaction – a fullness, which I suppose is why you are really after this exploration of mastery. In music it is more obvious perhaps, but it is there in everything.
In the education of a performing art, there is the finding of greater and greater satisfaction in the possession of the knowledge you are seeking. The same art can be treated as a discipline or can be treated more casually, mechanically as a subject. When music becomes a discipline, that’s your life, when music is a minor subject, it’s very different. If anything becomes a discipline, you seek a fuller kind of satisfaction. Simply being well- trained in something is not enough. Often many are well-trained for a purpose which quite often lies outside the central subject. Their own interests are elsewhere. When something becomes a discipline, that becomes a center of interest. If it isn’t, it shows. And in some artists it becomes obsessive. And when it isn’t obsessive or the central interest you can make out at some stage.
How would you describe mastery in this art form?
If given more time, I will go more and more toward radiant simplicities. Those simplicities are the product of a lifetime. Any durable experience has to arrive into a state of simplicity. Courtship is complex, a durable marriage is simple.
This article was compiled from several interviews by Leslie Schneider and is reprinted with permission from the Canadian South Asian magazine, “AAJ” (Oct 2016).